When leaked details of a corporate conference call threatened a €56 billion submarine deal with the government of Australia, the French defense giant Naval Group turned to Eric Leandri, an entrepreneur with a reputation as Europe’s digital privacy champion.
Leandri made his name as chief executive of the search engine Qwant. But he was now head of a new company, Altrnativ, a cyber surveillance firm compiling dossiers on private individuals for some of France’s biggest brands and working on cyberweapon contracts with authoritarian African regimes such as Chad and Cameroon. Naval Group asked Altrnativ to investigate participants on the call, as well as five others, including an Australian senator, an Australian journalist and the Australian CEO of a rival firm, according to documents seen by POLITICO.
The project’s goal: to discover how the submarine manufacturer's internal discussions were leaked to the Australian press, and to find out “who is loyal and who isn't,” according to the notes of a June 9, 2021, meeting between an Altrnativ employee and Naval Group's head of security.
The result: No firm conclusion on the source of the leak but a 40-page report listing the targets’ phone numbers, social media connections and in some cases personal information.
Just a few months later, the submarine deal was dead, France’s relations with Australia and America had collapsed in acrimony and China’s Communist leaders were frothing at the mouth over a new Indo-Pacific alliance known as AUKUS.
Informed for the first time by POLITICO that he had been the subject of a secret investigation, Rex Patrick, the Australian senator, said he found the practice “outrageous.”
“I don’t think anyone from France would appreciate an Australian state-owned company investigating a French senator because he or she was asking hard questions in the French Parliament on the spending of French taxpayers’ money,” he said. “They would rightly say such snooping was ‘choquant’, ‘outrageant’ and ‘scandaleux.’”
“Feel free to fix my bad French,” he added.
Details of Naval Group’s Australian job were among thousands of internal Altrnativ documents seen by POLITICO. They shine a light on the rapidly growing cyber surveillance industry, in which companies trawl the internet and other publicly available data sources to compile dossiers on employees, rivals or critics.
The practice is commonly used to perform due diligence checks on counterparties or potential hires, but it can also be deployed against outside critics or internal dissenters. In either case, it risks violating the European Union’s privacy laws known as the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR.
The Naval Group leak took place in the spring of 2021, months before Australia torpedoed the submarine deal, sparking an international diplomatic crisis. But the first cracks in the agreement were already beginning to show.
Worried about cost overruns and delays in delivery, the Australian government had refused to sign a new tranche of the deal. It was also secretly negotiating an anti-China alliance with the U.S. and U.K. that would become known as AUKUS and involved buying nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S. instead.
In the wake of the debacle, France temporarily recalled its ambassador to the U.S. for the first time ever. Paris also recalled its ambassador to Australia.
Still hoping to head off catastrophe, Naval Group gathered 30 people on May 5 on a call to discuss the status of the agreement. Details of the discussion were leaked to the Australian Financial Review, a business newspaper.
An article on May 14 by the political journalist Andrew Tillett described a company worried about the deal’s future. During the call, Fabrice Leduc, a Naval Group executive, said the company would freeze hiring and spend only what it knew would be reimbursed by Canberra.
Tillett reported how staffers worried aloud about being able to keep on schedule. One employee complained that accommodating the Australians’ demands was a “nightmare,” given the upcoming summer holidays in France.
Leandri had reached out to Naval Group a couple of months before the leak, with a 15-page pitch proposing a range of services, from “threat evaluation” to “identifying top haters.”
On July 1, the two companies struck an agreement intended to identify the leaker. According to a purchase order signed by Naval Group's deputy head of security Arnaud de Pellegars on July 1, Altrnativ was paid €9,600 to “map” the people the submarine manufacturer believed could be involved in the leak.
The documents suggest Naval Group passed on its employees’ names and phone numbers, and in one case also shared that one of its employees was in a relationship with a woman who had left Naval Group for a rival company.
The targets included people on the call, but also the woman who had left the company; Patrick, the Australian senator and a vocal critic of the submarine deal; and Tillett, the journalist. (Tillett declined an interview request from POLITICO. “As a journalist, I don't believe in commenting on sources,” he said. "Never have, never will.”)
Also targeted were Jim McDowell, CEO of the Australian defense firm Nova Systems, a competitor, and Brent Clark, chief executive of the Australian Industry and Defence Network, which represents local small and medium defense contractors.
In an interview, Leandri declined to comment on the job but denied he was given the employee's numbers by Naval Group. Companies “never share information with us,” he said.
Altrnativ’s 40-page report, delivered after more than a month and speckled with spelling mistakes, did not identify the leaker.
It identified five people Altrnativ deemed to be a “risk” for Naval Group, marking their profiles with a yellow triangle warning sign. One had worked in the U.S. and Japan. One had been employed by the state-owned Qatar Foundation. One was a woman who left the company in May.
One woman was listed as a risk because of her “visibility on social networks” and the “abundance of information that could be potentially collected.” These, the report concluded, put her at risk of foreign espionage.
The report excluded the possibility that an employee based in France contacted the journalist directly and presented a series of other possible scenarios, sometimes in the form of questions.
Could the woman who left the company in May be trying to curry favor with her new employer? Could another employer who had once worked for Qatar Foundation be trying to destabilize Naval Group on behalf of the petrostate?
While the report was light on conclusions, it was packed with details about the personal lives of its targets.
For each person, it listed phone numbers, social media profiles, job titles, marital status and number of children, when available. For some, it went deeper.
In the section regarding the woman who had left the company, it listed her hobbies, her Pinterest page and the name of her son, and concluded: “Her inclination towards yoga, art and jewelry-making seems to distance her from the main industrial and geopolitical issues of Australia.”
Altrnativ provided Naval Group with a phone number for McDowell, the CEO of Nova Group, and a link to his Amazon Wishlist. It included Patrick’s resume and mapped out the Australian senator’s social media accounts, highlighting his connections with Tillett, the journalist, and including screenshots of his Tweets.
Experts who spoke to POLITICO said it was unclear whether the leak investigation violated Australia’s regulations on the use of personal data.
“On the face of it, it has the potential to be a breach of privacy law,” said David Vaile, chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation. But the country’s rules carve out an exemption for “employee records,” a term that has been open to legal interpretation.
Patrick noted that not all the companies’ targets worked for Naval Group.
“I do not think it is the business of a French company to conduct an inquiry into any Australian citizen that was not employed by the company,” Patrick said. “Naval Group were in a contract with the Australian government and could have requested assistance from Australian authorities if they thought there were Australian citizens involved in any leak.”
Several experts said Naval Group and Altrnativ’s activities may have violated Europe’s GDPR privacy rules, which don’t include exceptions for employee data, especially if the targets were not informed about the investigation. Personal data, including political views, religious beliefs and racial or ethnic origins is considered “sensitive,” under the GDPR, said Eric Delisle, head of the employment, solidarity, sport and housing department at the CNIL, the French data protection authority. “The GDPR lays down a principle of prohibition of use except for very specific exceptions.”
The GDPR can be enforced for Australian targets as well, since their data was collected and processed by a French company, Altrnativ. “If a company is based in Europe or targets are individuals located in Europe, the GDPR applies," Delisle said.
The GDPR would have applied even if the data was public, according to Valérie Aumage, a French lawyer and head of the department dealing with digital law and the protection of personal data at PWC Société d’Avocats. “Wherever the data is coming from … the person has to be informed about what’s going to be done with it,” she said. Notification can be delayed, but that would have to be justified by “legitimate interests,” Aumage added. Data protection requirements do not end once the person is informed. “The processing has to be justified, including citing a legal basis for the processing and its necessity,” said Ravi Naik, legal director of the AWO agency, which specializes in data protection cases. “Necessity involves weighing the purpose of the investigation against the impact of the individual’s freedoms and rights,” he added.
Contacted by POLITICO, Philip Benton, a former contractor for Naval, said he was not aware his data had been used by Altrnativ. He said he had been interviewed by human resources and Naval Group's security but had not been told about the results of any investigations.
“We were not made aware of whether the source of the leak was identified,” he said. “It remains a mystery to me.”
Naval Group did not respond to a request for comment specifically on the allegations the company broke GDPR. Asked if Altrnativ broke the GDPR, Leandri did not reply.